A little amatuer vagrancy


CHARLES DICKENS ON WALKING the streets of London, quoted in Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City:

Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy – walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house…the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.

Although undoubtedly a man of great imagination, Dickens was also a reporter – a mirror for London. He described the city as he saw it (and he saw a lot of it, always on foot). He absorbed its quirks, its pockets of pleasure and its pockets of darkness, its characters and its many moods, and reflected them back at the city itself, just as a traveler would describe a foreign city to those in his homeland.

What do we see – how do we see – when we shed the eyes of an intimate and view our own city as ‘an unknown region’?

Book // Adam Gopnik’s ‘Paris to the Moon’

AFTER WHAT SEEMS MONTHS of lacklustre reading on my part, finally a book to be excited about, to quite literally – if embarrassingly to admit – smile and clutch at and to smell the pages, to run my fingers along the lines of text. It’s Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moonthe New Yorker essayist’s ode to an American family’s life in Paris in the last five years of the twentieth century. I was reminded that I’d been meaning to pick up a Gopnik when I aurally stumbled across the last of his five Massey Lectures on ‘Winter’ on Radio National the other day (I’ve now got the book of the same title on its way in a shipment from the Book Depository; the Royal Mail can’t get it here fast enough!)

I’ll borrow a few lines from the book’s introduction, which not only capture the spirit of the thing, but rather well capture the spirit of the mode of writing – well, of living – that I love and hope myself to realise.

The stories are mostly about life spent at home and include a lot – some will think too much – about the trinity of late-century bourgeois obsessions: children and cooking and spectator sports, including the spectator sport of shopping. Yet life is mostly lived by timid bodies at home, and since we see life as deeply in our pleasures as in our pains, we see the differences in lives as deeply there too. (Page 14)

I looked for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger…

What then…is exactly the vice of the comic-sentimentalist essayist? It is of course to believe that all experience and history can be reduced to him, or his near relations, and the only apology I can make is that for him in this case experience and history and life were not so much reduced as all mixed up, and, scrambled together, they at least become a subject. (Page 15)


London Thames

READING SAM SELVON’S The Lonely Londoners, the narrative of West Indian immigrants in post-war London, I was struck by this passage which rather sums up the power of a city to enthrall its inhabitants, to inspire a sense of real romance and imaginative possession. You could so easily substitute the streets, squares, and haunts of your own city:

Oh what it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’ What is it that a city has, that any place in the world has, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else?


WHEN I WAS FOUR, my mother dressed me as Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding. Grey tights, grey skivvy, a stocking over my face with currants drawn in permanent marker, and a pudding basin atop my head, the outfit’s crowning glory. No, she wasn’t indulging a deranged whim – it was dress-as-your-favourite-book-character day at kindergarten.

Already, I was different and, even at four, I knew it. All around me swirled tulle tutus and streaks of satin, glittering pinks and purples, cute little button-nosed Goldilocks and Tinkerbells. And here was I, a goddamn pudding. Refusing to submit to the indignity of the stocking, I gazed maliciously at the camera, unwittingly completing the impersonation of that bad-mannered, ill-tempered edible.

Years later, as I entered the painful so-called ‘tween’ years, there came another occasion for my mother to gratify the passion for dress-ups that invariably resulted in her children arriving in the most full-on interpretation of any theme. A friend held a birthday party for which we were invited to dress as our favourite pop stars, an assignment that filled me with inexplicable anxiety. Who to be? What to wear? It was an agonizing thought – my wobbly status as either cool or nerdy hung in the balance.

I’d embraced the Spice Girls, dabbled in a little Hanson and purchased the single of Barbie Girl, but this was about as far as my contemporary musical education had gone. This was the late nineties, and there was a plethora of socially acceptable girly pop stars from which to choose – Britney Spears, Natalie Imbruglia… all I needed was a crop top and a bit of sparkle. Even coming as one of the Backstreet Boys, although dressing as a boy was something I would not contemplate, would have been a better move than what eventuated.

I found myself, on the morning of the party, in a costume shop in the city, where my mother and the shop assistant consulted over who I should be, dragging out horrifying relics from the piles of musty clothes. Unlikely disco shoes were followed by jeweled sunglasses, worn pleather jackets and a seemingly unending supply of bedraggled feather boas. Suddenly one of them – my mother or the nutso costume lady – had a brain wave. Cyndi Lauper! Oh, wouldn’t that be fun! Fun? Fun! I didn’t want to be an object of fun. I didn’t even know who Cyndi Lauper was! And yet somehow, because of my panicked inability to make a decision or assert my social needs, Cyndi Lauper it was to be.

Looking back, I can only admire the effort and dedication that went into producing that outfit. Hair sprayed pink and teased up beyond repair, an aqua sequined boob-tube (although how I kept it up, at eleven, I’m not sure), miniskirt, inappropriately bright make-up, and the obligatory feather boa. Who are you supposed to be? Asked countless Britneys and Natalies as they took in the unfamiliar 80s aesthetic. Cyndi Lauper? Who’s that? You know, she sang Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, I’d respond defensively, clinging to the one fact I knew about my so-called ‘favourite’ pop star.

I remember tearfully gazing at my ludicrous reflection in the bathroom at the friend’s house, fighting back panic and irritation at my mother for having sent me like this, asking myself, why? Why can’t I just be like everyone else?

But if I had just been like everyone else, if I had been able to fulfill my painful desire to simply fit in, who would I have become? Would I have been imbued with the creativity, the courage, to start wearing Alannah Hill, vintage purses and pearls when those around me stuck to Sportsgirl and the surf brands? Would I ever have found the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, if I’d conformed to Britney Spears and Cher at an early age? Would I be an avid reader, a writer even, if my mother had just handed me an off-the-peg Cinderella outfit that day in kindergarten, rather than taking the time to read me gems of Australian fiction and draw currants on an old stocking?

While I found it painful at the time, perhaps dressing me in pudding basin was one of the best things my mother did for me – teaching me that to stand out, and take pride in your differences, is far more interesting, far more fun, than fitting in. And after all, girls do just want to have fun.